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Ryan O’Neal, Dead at 82, Struggled to Rebuild a Troubled Life

Ryan O’Neal made his name as a clean-cut, swoon-worthy leading man in films such as the tragic Love Story, Stanley Kubrick’s historical drama Barry Lyndon, and the madcap What’s Up Doc, but earned perhaps his most enduring acclaim for the father-daughter act in 1973’s Paper Moon, in which he verbally sparred with his real-life, 8-year-old child, Tatum O’Neal. His heartthrob status dimmed over the years, eclipsed by a chaotic and destructive personal life, including a volatile, high-profile relationship with Farrah Fawcett; accusations of drug use and physical abuse; and ultimately estrangement from many of those he was closest to. He spent his latter years trying to fix the things that had gone awry. 

By the time the actor died Friday, at the age of 82, he had managed to repair some relationships. His son, Patrick O’Neal, announced his death in an Instagram post by writing: “My father Ryan O’Neal has always been my hero. I looked up to him and he was always bigger than life.”

It was a particularly gracious sentiment on Patrick’s part because O’Neal’s relationships with his family had often been disastrous. The actor even noted that his litany of troubled screen dads may have been a reflection of his own shortcomings. “I’m a hopeless father. I don’t know why. I don’t think I was supposed to be a father,” he told Vanity Fair in 2009. 

For years, O’Neal was a top box-office draw. 1970’s Love Story, about a relationship with a woman (played by Ali McGraw) who ultimately becomes terminally ill, was a massive hit that established him as a top leading man. He had previously been known mainly for a decade of TV appearances, including a starring role on the soap opera Peyton Place. His next major role was opposite Barbra Streisand in 1972’s What’s Up, Doc? And the pair reunited in the 1979 boxing romance The Main Event

“So sad to hear the news of Ryan O’Neal’s passing,” Streisand wrote on Friday evening in an Instagram post featuring a photo of them together. “He was funny and charming, and he will be remembered.” (If that seems somewhat muted, it should be noted that O’Neal made unkind remarks about Streisand back in the day.)

Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw in a scene from the film, Love Story. Filed January 10, 1971.Bettmann

O’Neal made Paper Moon with director Peter Bogdanovich, and Barry Lyndon in 1975 with Kubrick, whose meticulous approach was notoriously grueling for actors. “He shoots a lot of takes, and you don’t get a stand-in,” O’Neal said in a 2014 retrospective for the film. “We shot for something like 350 days, and afterward they had to carry me away.” His 1984 family dramedy Irreconcilable Differences costarred Shelley Long and focused on a child, played by Drew Barrymore, who tries to divorce her thoughtless parents.

His status as a box office draw diminished after that, although he continued to be a major presence in the tabloids for his personal catastrophes and familial feuds.

O’Neal and Fawcett never married but were first together from the late 1970s to the late 1990s. The relationship shattered when Fawcett discovered that O’Neal was having a secret romance with actress Leslie Stefanson, who was 30 years younger than him. Fawcett caught them together at his Malibu home on Valentine’s Day. “It was terrible,” O’Neal said. “I didn’t expect to see her down there. I tried to put my pants on, but I put both legs in one hole.”

NEW YORK, NY – CIRCA 1989: Farrah Fawcett and Ryan O’Neal attend the New York Premiere of “Chances Are” circa 1989 in New York City. (Photo by REP/IMAGES/Getty Images)Images Press/Getty Images

He and Fawcett reconnected in 2001, when O’Neal was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia. “Leslie was gone, and Farrah came to me,” he said. “We started over again, and this time we built it in a way that had foundation and trust.” 

His relationships with his children were harder to rebuild. He had four kids: Tatum and a son, Griffin, with his first wife, actress Joanna Moore, whom he divorced in 1967. He had Patrick with his second wife, actress Leigh Taylor-Young, whom he married immediately after splitting with Moore, then divorced in 1971. And finally, he had a third son, Redmond, with Fawcett in 1985.

Onscreen in 1973’s Paper Moon, Ryan had a playful chemistry with Tatum, who won the Oscar for supporting actress, making her still the youngest-ever Academy Award winner. Behind the scenes, there were allegations of abuse, neglect and horrific lapses in judgment. The 2009 Vanity Fair article stated: “In her autobiography, A Paper Life, Tatum claimed that she had suffered physical and emotional abuse as a result of her father’s drug abuse.”

Ryan’s on-the-record reaction to journalist Leslie Bennetts: “She wrote a book—bitch! How dare she throw our laundry in the street for money!”

Tatum pushed back on his outrage. “He has every right to be angry about the book,” she said. “No parent wants to hear their kid saying shitty things about them. But what I wrote in the book was true. I’ve got a battle with drugs, but I’m a strong, independent person, and I fight for myself, and my father and I butt heads.”

Griffin also accused his father of mistreatment that led to a lifetime marked by woe and tragedy. He was driving the speedboat in a 1986 accident that caused the massive head injuries that killed Francis Ford Coppola’s son Gian-Carlo. A jury acquitted Griffin of manslaughter but convicted him of negligent operation of a boat. He served time in jail only after neglecting to fulfill the community-service obligations from his sentencing.

In 2007, Ryan was arrested for shooting a gun during an argument with Griffin at a birthday party for Fawcett. “When she turned 60, we had this celebratory birthday where I shot my son,” O’Neal said. “I could have hit him, but I missed.” The charges were dropped, and Griffin later lambasted him as a destructive force in his life.

“My father gave me cocaine when I was 11 and insisted I take it,” Griffin told Vanity Fair in 2009. “He was violent all the way through my upbringing. He was a very abusive, narcissistic psychopath. He gets so mad he can’t control anything he’s doing.”

In 2008, O’Neal was arrested on drug charges along with his youngest son, Redmond, after police found meth at their Malibu home. Redmond had longterm drug issues, and also blamed his parents for his difficulties.

At Fawcett’s funeral, O’Neal admitted to a shockingly awkward encounter with Tatum when he failed to recognize her. Here’s how he recounted it to Bennetts: “I had just put the casket in the hearse and I was watching it drive away when a beautiful blonde woman comes up and embraces me,” Ryan said. “I said to her, ‘You have a drink on you? You have a car?’ She said, ‘Daddy, it’s me—Tatum!’ I was just trying to be funny with a strange Swedish woman, and it’s my daughter. It’s so sick.”

Tatum recalled the encounter with a sigh: “That’s our relationship in a nutshell. You make of it what you will. It had been a few years since we’d seen each other, and he was always a ladies’ man, a bon vivant.”

American actors Ryan O’Neal and his daughter, Tatum O’Neal, circa 1973.Silver Screen Collection

The father-daughter duo reunited a few years later and chronicled their effort to restore their relationship in the reality TV series Ryan and Tatum: The O’Neals. Patrick and Griffin did not take part in the show, but Redmond did. Father and daughter both attended a court hearing for Redmond that year when he faced new gun and drug charges after being found with those items in a traffic stop, which violated his parole from the 2009 drug case. 

“I feel great sorrow with my father’s passing,” Tatum told People magazine Friday evening after his death was announced. “He meant the world to me. I loved him very much and know he loved me too. I’ll miss him forever and I feel very lucky that we ended on such good terms.”

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